Keeping Luck clean is O-line's job
Stanford's high-powered football offense has to start with the offensive line
The perfect football game, according to Stanford redshirt junior Jonathan Martin, would be one in which the Cardinal takes a lead into the fourth quarter and then holds on by running the same play over and over again with the backs collecting yards the way a slot machine pays off a jackpot and the team using the game clock like a sponge and soaking up the minutes.
There's one small thing Martin would add to this scenario: after the game, Andrew Luck's jersey would look like it was freshly laundered and his hair would be perfect.
Martin, Stanford's bulky and agile 6-foot-6, 306-pound left tackle, has a lot to say about just those scenarios. Now in his third year as a starter, he's been part of an offensive line that helped both Luck and Toby Gerhart enjoy the bright city lights of New York at Heisman Trophy time.
Martin, right guard David DeCastro, center Sam Schwartzstein, right tackle Cameron Fleming and left guard David Yankey may have outdone themselves in Stanford's 65-21 victory over No. 22 Washington last weekend. The fourth-ranked Cardinal (5-0, 7-0) rushed for a school record 446 yards as both Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney rushed for over 100 yards.
Anthony Wilkerson, whose 38-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter officially set the mark, gave Stanford three backs with at least 93 yards rushing in the contest.
"We were all excited about achieving the record," said Martin, who joined in with the rest of the offensive linemen to perform a special, in-game, version of its 'Tunnel Workers Union" routine, usually reserved for pregame activity to acknowledge the union's founder and past leader, Chris Marinelli.
Kevin Danser and Tyler Mabry, who enter the game as a package that gives Stanford seven offensive linemen on some plays, are always included in the festivities.
"As much as anything those guys play well as a unit," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Danser and Mabry we consider as starters."
The Cardinal will need everything it can muster from the offensive line Saturday when it shows up at the Los Angeles Coliseum to dig in against the behemoths that make up USC's defensive front.
The 22nd-ranked Trojans (3-1, 6-1) seem to be enjoying flexing their muscles this year. The way they look at things, any game against a ranked opponent is their bowl game and their conference championship game — since USC is ineligible for a bowl game this season due to NCAA sanctions.
Stanford remains the top defensive team against the run and USC ranks right behind, which should generate plenty of volatility in the trenches.
"I always felt like we had a great offensive line here," Luck said. "I don't know how they compare across the nation but they do great things and they work hard every day."
Stanford has allowed two sacks all year and that's with Luck staying in the pocket longer this year. By contrast, USC has allowed just four sacks.
Martin's role as left tackle has been particularly important the past few years. So-called experts have taken notice, ranking him as the No. 2 offensive line product in the nation, with DeCastro listed at No. 4 by at least one TV analyst.
"They made a movie about it, 'The Blind Side,' " Martin said. "You usually block the best pass rusher and the quarterback can't see behind. That's been the team goal all along. He is our offense and we need to make sure he stays clean."
Shaw pointed out the importance of the position by reminding the room it's the highest paid position on the line in the NFL.
"He helps me sleep at night," Shaw said of Martin. "It is the most precise position on the offensive line for a right-handed quarterback, who can keep his eyes downfield. Martin, over the past two or three years, has become more physical and he's finishing runs down the field."
Martin and Fleming were the only starters on the line recruited to Stanford at their positions. DeCastro was one of the top high school centers in the nation, Schwartzstein came in as a highly-regarded guard and Yankey was a tackle when he first arrived.
"Sam has continued to play very well at the center position," Shaw said. "Our offense doesn't work without a center playing well. I can't say enough about Yankey's progress. He's gotten better and better. DeCastro is fast enough to pull and big enough to create lanes."
In addition to Wilkerson's late touchdown run, Taylor's 70-yard touchdown run was another defining moment. He went untouched after running through a hole big enough for a sumo wrestler.
"That was all game plan and everybody being on the same page," said Taylor, who glanced at the scoreboard to see how far ahead he was of any pursuers.
USC junior quarterback Matt Barkley has also been part of the Heisman Trophy conversation in the past and he's having a terrific year. He's second in the Pac-12 with 286.6 passing yards a game and fourth in pass efficiency with a rating of 154.7. He's also thrown for 19 touchdowns and been intercepted four times.
Luck continues to lead the conference with his 180.0 pass efficiency rating and he's fifth in yards per game. Luck has completed 72 percent of his passes while Barkley is at 68 percent.
Both teams have the means to make the game a defensive struggle or a high-powered offensive juggernaut. USC has nothing to lose and Stanford has everything to gain —keeping its 15-game winning streak going and the possibility of playing either in the Rose Bowl or BCS Championship game.